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Tweeting keeps lawmakers connected Many realize messages reach different audience

It wasn't grammatically correct, and it certainly wasn't formal, but this is the way Rep. Chris Lee, R-Amherst, chatted with constituents last month:

"First twitter town hall question: @justinshanley @chrislee_ny26 what do you propose to cut from the federal budget ?? #AskChris 12:02 PM Dec 14th via web.

"@justinshanley Been $155 bil in commonsense spending cuts brought up 4 votes (like my bill 2 cut overprinting $35 mil/10 years) #AskChris... 12:04 PM Dec 14th via web

That's Twitterspeak for a dialogue between Lee and constituent Justin Shanley, and for those of you unused to the anything-to-abbreviate, 140-character-or-less language of Twitter, it translates, roughly, to this:

Shanley: What do you propose to cut from the federal budget?

Lee: There have been $155 billion in common-sense spending cuts brought up for votes, including my bill to cut wasteful congressional printing by $35 million over 10 years.

Welcome to the new world of congressional communication.

Eighteen months after angry constituents scared the living daylights out of lawmakers at live-and-in-person town halls all across the nation, members of Congress are increasingly turning to social media to interact with average Americans.

And the results, not surprisingly, are a little less freewheeling than what you might have seen on CNN in the summer of 2009.

Locally, Lee has led the way in using the Internet and "tele-town halls" to communicate with constituents.

In addition to his December Twitter town hall, he's held 32 tele-town halls over the past two years, reaching tens of thousands of voters via a controlled setting where voters can call in to talk to the congressman -- but where his staff screens the questions.

Lee said the tele-town hall format allows him to reach far more constituents than in-person meetings ever would.

"My mantra is that I'd rather over communicate rather than under communicate," he said.

He's done that in a variety of settings. He said the inaugural Twitter town hall reached 2,000 people and a different audience than the tele-town halls, which tend to draw a much larger and older crowd.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, also uses the tele-town hall format.

She, Lee and the rest of Western New York's representatives tweet regularly and have Facebook pages where they post everything from their thoughts of the day to, in the case of Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, photos of his law firm's company picnic.

Some lawmakers even have two Facebook pages: one where they handle official business and another where they campaign, including, of course, a "donate" tab.

New York's two senators are in on the game as well.

The Facebook page of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has more than 7,600 people "liking" it. And it includes a lively discussion board where constituents can post their thoughts for the senator.

Voters do the same on the Facebook "wall" on Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand's page. The New York Democrat posts her thoughts there regularly and has 30 photo albums showing her travels around the state and other activities.

And on Twitter, the lawmakers' sites can be as lively as the debates in Congress. For proof, witness these posts from the first week of January, when Republicans took control of the House:

Reed (R): "John Boehner is officially Speaker! A new day of transparency, accountabilty, and getting spending under control has come to DC."

Slaughter (D): "Associated Press: "Promises, Promises: GOP drops some out of the gate" http://apne.ws/evuq8B."

Higgins, an early convert to social media whose Twitter posts tend to tout the progress Buffalo appears to be making, said lawmakers today have no choice but to communicate via the Internet.

"Any means of communication is an important part of the job," he said. "Sometimes we use it to discuss serious issues. Sometimes it's just good community relations."

Then again, the freewheeling social media world can come back to bite lawmakers, too. For example, there's a Twitter account in the name of "SenSchumerNY," which seems to have been created by an angry fan of the Four Loko, the potent booze-and-caffeine cocktail that Schumer sought to ban.

Pretending to be the senator, "SenSchumerNY" 's last Twitter post reads: "I like to ban alcohol and caffeine. I know; it makes no sense, but I need something to get reelected for in 4 years."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com